One March morning in 1819, a young radical activist named Karl Ludwig Sand knocked on the door of the home of August von Kotzebue, the famous royalist writer, in the German city of Mannheim. Presenting himself as an admirer of the great dramatist, Sand asked to speak to Kotzebue, but was told he would be out until later. Sand returned that afternoon and, upon meeting his literary hero in the drawing room, stabbed Kotzebue with a dagger before plunging the weapon into his own stomach. A member of one of the Burschenschaften, Germany’s nationalist student groups, Sand wanted to punish Kotzebue’s mockery of liberal ideals. Though he failed to kill himself, he succeeded in murdering Kotzebue.
Responding to this act of suicide terrorism, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Empire’s foreign minister, asked, “What can one do against men who kill themselves?” It is in moments like this that the reader of Phantom Terror is most tempted to see in 19th-century Europe an analogue of today’s protracted struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. In the preface, however, Adam Zamoyski announces that he will restrain himself from mentioning George W. Bush. He will, instead, allow the reader to supply his or her own connections.
The setting is the roiling half-century after the French Revolution. Having seen the Old Regime fall to the Jacobins, as well as Napoleon’s revolutionary imperialism, European monarchies feared subversion and terror inspired by the French example. The Enlightenment had encouraged belief in republican government all over Europe: Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, the Prussian and German states, and Russia. Though their wishes were often less radical than the Jacobins’, reformers wanted a unified nation-state—the modern reader must remember that nationalism originated on the left—and a government defined by a liberal constitution.
Continental rulers reacted with all manner of repressive tactics, censoring books, restricting travel, and purging universities of “immoral” faculty. One result of their fears was the inauguration of the modern secret police force. Any fair-minded reader, when learning about 19th-century espionage, sees how fatuous it is to claim that the contemporary United States is a “police state.” If you want to know how a real police state operates, consider how the Bourbon monarchy watched over French citizens after the Napoleonic Wars. In huge backroom operations, state agents carefully opened loads of civilian mail. Informants called mouchards (derived from the French word for “fly”) were recruited from the streets to spy on everyone, especially the denizens of brothels, pubs, and coffeehouses. Other reactionary governments created their own versions of this repressive apparatus.
The late Richard Grenier once wrote that conspiracy theories are the sophistication of the ignorant; but at this time in Europe’s history, they were also the ignorance of the sophisticated. Monarchs and their courtiers believed in them as intensely as the man on the street. The storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789) had helped incubate a conspiracist impulse in Europe that became a fixture in political thinking. Some noted that the Bastille fell on the same day that Jerusalem had fallen in the First Crusade. Encouraged by lurid books, people believed that the Illuminati, Masons, and Templars had long ago taken control of history and, from Tuscany to Moscow, were guiding current events.
It is difficult to overstate the power these fantasies exerted in the decades after 1789. The murder of Kotzebue is one of the few acts of genuine terror documented here; most of the era’s anxiety was generated by hysterical tales of secret societies. Being unfalsifiable by definition, conspiracy theories only grow more potent with each debunking. A perverse feedback mechanism existed in which more counterrevolutionary “security” only worsened people’s sense of insecurity. As for Metternich, Zamoyski writes, “Instead of reassuring him, lack of evidence of conspiracy tended to make [him] more suspicious.”